AUGUSTA, Maine — Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Ross LaJeunesse advocated for stronger regulation of big technology companies after speaking for the first time to The Washington Post about human-rights concerns he had during his time at Google.
It looks to be a major focal point for LaJeunesse, who set up a four-way Democratic primary for the right to face Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins after launching his race in November. At that time, he was mostly quiet about his time at Google, aside from a statement on his campaign website saying Google “tried to buy his silence” after he walked out.
The Arundel native worked at the tech giant for more than a decade, finishing his tenure earlier this year as the global head of international relations as a high-profile voice on free-speech issues. He told The Washington Post in a Thursday report and in a Medium post that advocacy, along with concerns over the workplace culture around diversity and LGBTQ issues at Google, ultimately led to him being pushed out of the company this spring.
In an interview with the Bangor Daily News, LaJeunesse said he ultimately decided to speak about his experience because of the trust people put into companies and how much money and marketing that companies, including Google, put into earning that trust.
“I started seeing it, honestly, as a form of corruption and an abuse of power,” he said.
He said his departure came after two years of pushing for a human rights program as Google was exploring a return to China via a censored search app called Project Dragonfly, a since-abandoned reversal of a 2010 decision to stop censoring search results in China.
LaJeunesse was a key figure in that earlier decision. He said he had interceded on similar proposals before, including a China-specific app store, when those proposals concerned him and has spoken frequently about the issues of free speech, technology and LGBTQ rights.
Having a human rights program that enshrined the company’s views around free speech and privacy would ensure those values would be adhered to, even if LaJeunesse or his deputies weren’t in the room, he told the Post. After two years of pushing for the program, LaJeunesse said he was told in February his role would be eliminated as part of a reorganization effort.
Although Google offered him a position on foreign policy, LaJeunesse left the company three months later, calling it a “meaningless position” meant to put him “back in the closet.” LaJeunesse is gay.
A Google spokesperson told The Post the company has an “unwavering” commitment to human rights efforts, saying LaJeunesse’s departure was due to a reorganization of the company’s policy team and that the new job offer was at the same pay and level.
LaJeunesse said his time at Google showed him the need for more aggressive regulations for big technology companies from the federal government, saying companies are unable to self-regulate and protect user privacy, personal data or keep child abuse or other criminal content off their platforms.
He pointed to California’s Consumer Privacy Act, which is said to be one of the more aggressive privacy policies in the country and went into effect Wednesday, saying states will put forward their own policies if Congress doesn’t create one.
LaJeunesse said he plans to release his own plans for big tech regulations in the coming weeks. While at Google in 2012, he said during a panel at the conservative American Enterprise Institute that the Internet’s success as a cultural phenomenon was due to the role of private companies and users, not governments.
There are a few bills concerning Internet privacy before Congress now. LaJeunesse said he is encouraged by California’s law and said there are “good things” in a white paper from U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, that proposes to force technology companies to put a public price on consumer data, among other things.
“We need to step up and say, ‘These are the rules of the road, this is what is acceptable and what is not acceptable,’” LaJeunesse said. “A lot of it should be about transparency, a lot of it has to be about consumers owning and controlling their own data.”